Hunter's 'Pale Horse': righteous fire

October 21, 2001|By Elsbeth L. Bothe | By Elsbeth L. Bothe,Special to the Sun

Pale Horse Coming, by Stephen Hunter. Simon & Schuster. 491 pages. $25.

Fallout from the terrible reality of Sept. 11 could thankfully turn away tastes for shoot-'em-up torture thrillers of the sort produced by Stephen Hunter, poet laureate of the NRA. Who now needs fiction featuring outsized terrorists gleefully wreaking carnage upon mythical objects of hate?

Bad as bigotry may have been back then, Pale Horse Coming, set in the deep South of 1951, presents historic fictions that will tweak the most credulous believers. The jumping-off character is Arkansas country lawyer, Sam Vincent, who accepts a juicy retainer to trace the fate of a faithful black servant, last seen leaving Chicago for retirement to his Mississippi home. Retire to Thebes? It's the ultimate hellhole, wholly corrupted in the evil and abject circumstance of secret and sinister "Thebes State Prison (Colored)." (By comparison, real Parchman Prison would be a resort.)

Sam's cerebral approach is complemented by freedom fighter Earl Swagger (back from other Hunter novels) who goes but never dies on suicide missions. Earl will do anything for Sam, who boats along bayous in business suit and tie, blathering law at bullies.

Gamely making it to Thebes, Sam is roughed up by "deputies" who club and drag him to the autocratic presence of the sheriff. Allowed to leave, Sam foolishly turns back when he spots a raft of drowned black bodies grotesquely floating on the river. Earl manages to get Sam out, but is himself detained (because he obstinately refuses to reveal his true identity) for spine-tingling torture -- heavy whippings, protracted periods squeezed into a tight coffin, being chained through the body and thrown in the river with concrete block attached.

Chapters jump between Earl's suffering in Thebes and Sam back in Arkansas being thwarted and threatened as he probes the occult mysteries of the renegade prison. Real life analogies are haphazardly hinted: The Tuskegee experiment -- there's a brilliant disappeared physician whose spouse lives in Baltimore; and a genteel descendant of Thebes' patriarchal family who has the gall to claim it was exactly like "the one Mr. Faulkner up in Oxford has such sport with ..."

Back in civilization, Earl stages the grand finale, assembling an elite posse of ancient gunslingers eager to whoop it up on an "enterprise" that, as Hunter acknowledges, "is technically illegal no matter how morally upstanding." We are treated to an apocalypse-with-fireworks display.

Ed fires in less than two-fifths of a second bringing down the sheriff and three deputies; Charlie throws a firebomb and snags 24 fleeing men with blasts from his Browning Auto-5, two more with his Colt; Earl exchanges his Winchester .348 for a revolver in each hand so he can do "close work" on "Bigboy," whom he ultimately slays with an ax.

"The crack of Jack's .270 suggested that the old man was doing his damage." Somebody "whacked the Warden." With a large .44 in each hand, Elmer empties them into "a corridor full of half-dressed men" then gets three more with his Winchester '92 in .38-40. Audie fires the "whole, long curved clip" of his German attack rifle and "gets 'em both," going on with his 45 Colt to "score three hits in less than a second, and two were fatals." Thebes becomes history.

What a waste of firepower when unimaginable acts of real life terrorism are sparked by ordinary box cutters!

Elsbeth L. Bothe retired from Baltimore Circuit Court after 18 years as a judge trying serious criminal cases, many of them murder. As a lawyer, Bothe represented a number of death row inmates. An active member of the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder for 40 years, Bothe was recently a delegate to a Jack-the-Ripper conference in Bournemouth, England.

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